Student Loses Rhodes Scholarship After Investigation Finds She Lied About Childhood Poverty and Abuse

Mackenzie Fierceton won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, and now she’s lost it after an investigation found she lied about her upbringing.

Mackenzie Fierceton, Rhodes scholar accused of lying about her upbringing.
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Mackenzie Fierceton, Rhodes scholar accused of lying about her upbringing.

24-year-old Mackenzie Fierceton won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship last year to study at Oxford University, and now she’s lost her place at the school after accusations that she lied about her past.

As the Evening Standard reports, University of Pennsylvania graduate Fierceton was one of only 32 people selected for the scholarship in November 2020. At the time, she received praise for overcoming a self-described difficult and impoverished upbringing. Per the Times, she called herself a “queer, first generation [to attend college], low-income” student. And in a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, Fierceton said she bounced between various foster homes in her childhood.

Shortly after the arrival of that profile, an anonymous individual claimed Fierceton had been “blatantly dishonest.” The source said Fierceton, who originally went by the name Mackenzie Morrison, actually came from an affluent background and went to Whitfield private school for $30,000 a year in St. Louis. The tipster added that Fierceton’s hobbies at the time included horse riding and skydiving, and that her mother is a radiologist. She did spend less than a year in foster care at the age of 17, according to an investigation from the Rhodes Trust, and claimed she was pushed down the stairs by her mother.

The first investigation into Fierceton was conducted by Dr. Beth Winkelstein, who said in her report that the scholar fabricated details about her upbringing. Winkelstein, in a letter sent to the Rhodes committee, said Fierceton “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood,” and recommended they look into her case themselves. 

The Rhodes committee interviewed Mackenzie about claims she made regarding the violent incident with her mother. She claimed her facial features were “so distorted and swollen that I [could] tell them apart,” but the Rhodes committee said this was “inconsistent with the hospital records” regarding the incident. “Either [Fierceton] has fabricated this abuse by her mother, or her mother has lied about the terrible abuse,” the committee’s report reads.

“Penn and the Rhodes Trust received credible information that called into question statements Ms. Fierceton made in her applications for admission, financial assistance, and scholarships,” said a spokesperson for University of Pennsylvania, per the New York Post, which notes the school is withholding her master’s degree. “The Rhodes Trust conducted its own investigation, during which it considered evidence and arguments provided by Ms. Fierceton and her attorney. … The Trust then gave Ms. Fierceton the opportunity to withdraw her candidacy if she chose to do so. Ms. Fierceton accepted that offer and withdrew her candidacy.”

Fierceton has insisted she did not lie and says the Rhodes Trust is targeting a survivor of abuse. She filed a lawsuit in December alleging that the trust and university investigators have victimized her.

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